The Democrats Are Missing the Biggest Issue of the 2020 Election

 In China, C4ISR, GDI, Industrial, Defense

The con­ven­tion­al view of this year’s Democratic nom­i­na­tion battle is that it rep­re­sents essen­tial­ly a con­flict between the party estab­lish­ment, described gen­er­al­ly as “center-left” in polit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion (Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bloomberg), vs. the more rad­i­cal left­ists (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren). But that isn’t what this cam­paign season is really about. It’s about how the nation’s lead­ers will address the most press­ing polit­i­cal real­i­ty of our time — namely, the crum­bling of the American status quo and, more omi­nous­ly, the global status quo. America is strug­gling through a Crisis of the Old Order.

The Old Order is essen­tial­ly the order estab­lished at the end of World War II and its imme­di­ate after­math. That’s when U.S. GDP encom­passed rough­ly 50 per­cent of global GDP and as much as 40 per­cent through the 1960s. Militarily, America bestrode the globe like a colos­sus. The dollar reigned supreme in global mar­kets. A bal­ance of power was main­tained between the West, led by America, and its only rival, Bolshevik Russia, poised on Europe’s back porch with 1.3 mil­lion Soviet and client-state troops.

Those days are long gone. The old Soviet threat to Europe no longer exists, but America clings to the notion that Russia is still a mortal threat to the West. NATO, cre­at­ed as a defen­sive mil­i­tary alliance against that mortal threat, has pushed right up to the Russian border and threat­ened to snatch Moscow’s dom­i­nance over ter­ri­to­ries that had been part of Russia’s sphere of influ­ence for cen­turies. U.S. GDP, as a share of global GDP, is down to about 15 per­cent, reflect­ing a pro­found change in America’s global finan­cial stand­ing. The rise of China rep­re­sents a pro­found alter­ation in the global status quo, and yet America seems inca­pable of con­fronting that new real­i­ty with any effec­tive­ness, bogged down as it is in seem­ing­ly end­less Middle Eastern wars and mil­i­tary adven­tures.

In short, the world has changed pro­found­ly while America con­tin­ues to oper­ate as if the old status quo reins. That by def­i­n­i­tion is a crisis of the Old Order.

In terms of U.S. domes­tic pol­i­tics, the gap between real­i­ty and estab­lish­ment think­ing is even more pro­found. Consider some of the pow­er­ful changes imping­ing on the old status quo. In the Old Order days, the country’s dom­i­nant party was the Democrats, and their bedrock con­stituen­cy was the American work­ing class, which inevitably meant a large con­tin­gent of whites. America’s indus­tri­al might was unchal­lenged in the world, and the econ­o­my was dom­i­nat­ed by doers and builders. There was a remark­able degree of amity and mutual respect between the nation’s elites and the pop­u­la­tion at large. Sustained eco­nom­ic growth boost­ed stan­dards of living gen­er­al­ly across the board. The def­i­n­i­tion­al ele­ments of America were large­ly estab­lished and widely embraced. Immigration seemed to most Americans as being gen­er­al­ly under con­trol and hence didn’t rep­re­sent any kind of major polit­i­cal fault line. Class divi­sions were minor and muted.

All that is now under severe chal­lenge. The Democratic Party, having aban­doned the work­ing class, now rep­re­sents what polit­i­cal ana­lyst Ron Brownstein has called “the coali­tion of the ascen­dant” — racial minori­ties, immi­grants, mil­len­ni­als, highly edu­cat­ed whites, ”and just enough Midwestern whites to put the pres­i­dent over the top.” But the party didn’t get just enough of those whites in the last pres­i­den­tial elec­tion and hence lost out in the bal­lot­ing. The hol­low­ing out of America’s indus­tri­al base has dev­as­tat­ed those white com­mu­ni­ties and tossed the old polit­i­cal struc­tures into tur­moil. An intense hos­til­i­ty has emerged between America’s so-called mer­i­to­crat­ic elite and the people who used to be called “Middle America.” The finan­cial­iza­tion of the U.S econ­o­my has replaced those builders and doers — people who gen­er­at­ed lots of jobs in the old days — with man­darins of finance who take a big cut in cor­po­rate trans­ac­tions with­out gen­er­at­ing any wealth on their own. (In the 1950s, only 2.5 per­cent of GDP went to the finan­cial sector; today it’s 8.3 per­cent.) The big banks have essen­tial­ly col­o­nized the U.S. Treasury Department and the Fed. Economic growth today pales in com­par­i­son to those Old Order days. And big emo­tion­al issues relat­ed to the def­i­n­i­tion of America, par­tic­u­lar­ly immi­gra­tion, are roil­ing the body politic. 

Thus is it clear that in domes­tic pol­i­tics, as in the global arena, America faces a crum­bling status quo that poses big new polit­i­cal chal­lenges. And yet those chal­lenges don’t seem to get much atten­tion from the politi­cians. Certainly, they chip away here and there at prob­lems relat­ed to the status quo dis­in­te­gra­tion, but there’s little effort to meet the sit­u­a­tion head-on or to craft a nar­ra­tive that explains coher­ent­ly and mean­ing­ful­ly what’s really hap­pen­ing. Politicians, after all, are usu­al­ly the last to per­ceive such things because they are so invest­ed in the status quo and the old argu­ments that worked so well in the past. Ordinary folks are always ahead of their polit­i­cal lead­ers in seeing the real­i­ties of the day.

This becomes clear when we look at the Democratic nom­i­na­tion battle now in full cry. Consider Joe Biden of Delaware. Never a man of much imag­i­na­tion or intel­lec­tu­al depth, he was nev­er­the­less a man of his time in the best sense. Although given to excess­es of vol­u­bil­i­ty and unfor­tu­nate mis­state­ments, he carved out for him­self a per­sona and a polit­i­cal posi­tion­ing that worked for him and for the coun­try. Eschewing rigid­i­ty and hide­bound think­ing, he demon­strat­ed impres­sive inde­pen­dence of thought. And he was an adroit leg­isla­tive politi­cian, will­ing to forge rela­tion­ships with nom­i­nal adver­saries and work across the aisle in behalf of com­pro­mise leg­is­la­tion

But in these times of status quo ero­sion, he has proved to be utter­ly dis­ori­ent­ed and irrel­e­vant. His most per­sis­tent cam­paign mes­sage is that we have to get rid of President Trump, with the implic­it corol­lary that, once that hap­pens, we can all go back to the good old days. He’s in obliv­ion. Trump rep­re­sents a tight knot of polit­i­cal sen­ti­ment through­out Middle America that isn’t going away. Biden can see nei­ther the knot of sen­ti­ment nor its rela­tion­ship to the crum­bling status quo — nor, for that matter, the status quo crisis itself.

Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is a con­ven­tion­al Old Order polit­i­cal lib­er­al who nods oblig­ing­ly to the often out­landish new ortho­dox­ies of the Democratic Party — little or no restric­tions on abor­tion; decrim­i­nal­iza­tion of what are now ille­gal border cross­ings; path­way to cit­i­zen­ship for ille­gal immi­grants; decrim­i­nal­iza­tion of mar­i­jua­na; $15 min­i­mum wage. But he also adept­ly finess­es tough issues. He sup­ports greater defense spend­ing but wants to bring home many of our over­seas troops. He stu­dious­ly avoids any endorse­ment of repa­ra­tions for slav­ery but wants to study it. He’s cau­tious on stu­dent debt for­give­ness but sup­ports fed­er­al and state finan­cial sup­port so no one has to assume debt for col­lege. 

Ultimately, Mayor Pete offers no vision or nar­ra­tive of where the coun­try is or where it could go. He’s an issues tech­no­crat, split­ting dif­fer­ences, trad­ing in nuances. It makes him sound like a polit­i­cal sophis­ti­cate, but it doesn’t add up to much. He’s a tin­ker­er.

So far nei­ther Senator Amy Klobuchar nor former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has demon­strat­ed much capac­i­ty for pro­vid­ing a nar­ra­tive of the fading status quo or a vision of what could replace it. Charmingly enthu­si­as­tic and nat­ur­al, Klobuchar nib­bles around the edges of America’s civic prob­lems and gives no hint that she is aware of the fun­da­men­tal real­i­ties of these tran­si­tion­al times. Meanwhile, Bloomberg, one of the great cor­po­rate vision­ar­ies of the past cen­tu­ry, man­i­fests little indi­ca­tion that his vision extends to the pro­found forces of change swirling around America and the world. 

Elizabeth Warren is a clas­sic lib­er­al pop­ulist who hates the rich and cor­po­rate power to such an extent that she wants to aggran­dize gov­ern­men­tal power in order to take on those neme­ses. Far more than Biden or Buttigieg, she would upend the bal­ance of polit­i­cal power in the coun­try. But unlike con­ser­v­a­tive pop­ulists, who want to return polit­i­cal power to the people, she wants to lodge it in the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to a greater extent than ever before, to be wield­ed by legions of man­age­r­i­al offi­cials who, inevitably, will become more and more iso­lat­ed from any levers of con­trol and account­abil­i­ty.  

Whatever one may think about such a pro­gram, it does, in fact, rep­re­sent a vision for America’s future. It comes out of the play­book of James Burnham’s famous 1941 trea­tise, The Managerial Revolution, which posit­ed that the great clash of our time was not between cap­i­tal­ism and com­mu­nism but rather between cap­i­tal­ism and an emerg­ing cen­tral­ized soci­ety dom­i­nat­ed by a new man­age­r­i­al class of busi­ness exec­u­tives, tech­ni­cians, gov­ern­ment bureau­crats and var­i­ous kinds of experts. This new class, said Burnham, would insti­tute cen­tral plan­ning and under­cut any true democ­ra­cy by super­im­pos­ing itself upon soci­ety as a kind of man­age­r­i­al oli­garchy.

Warren’s vision is the Burnham vision. But, where­as Burnham greet­ed the prospect with trep­i­da­tion, Warren seems to embrace it whole­heart­ed­ly. So far it doesn’t seem to be taking hold as a blue­print for the American future.

Source: National Interest

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